Release Date(s)2019 (January 28, 2020)
Studio(s)Class 5 Films/MWM Studios/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Motherless Brooklyn, based on the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private eye coping with Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. His boss and mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), owns and operates a small private investigation agency in Brooklyn. Frank’s other employees, and Lionel’s co-workers, are Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee), and Danny (Dallas Roberts). While pursuing what appears to be a routine case, Frank gets entangled in a gangland mystery that Lionel has to unravel.
Lionel is an interesting character. Picked out of a Catholic orphanage for boys by Frank shortly after the boy’s mother died, Lionel was taught the private eye game—his photographic memory an asset in remembering details and putting together clues. Now he must use his skills to peel away countless layers, follow leads, and uncover long-guarded secrets that can affect the entire city.
Lionel’s affliction causes outbursts at inappropriate moments, touching of others, and nervous tics; he has named the condition Bailey (Tourette’s is never mentioned). He constantly apologizes for his distressing mannerisms, explaining that “something’s wrong with my head,” and is told by everyone that it’s fine. His friends good-naturedly kid him with the nickname Freakshow, but if they cross the line, he asserts himself.
With the mysterious word “Formosa” as his only clue to what happened to Frank, Lionel sets out on an obsessive mission that takes him from smoky jazz clubs to the higher echelons of city politics. Frank was hired to trail Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a law graduate working for Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), a civic organizer desperate to stop the destruction of minority-occupied housing to make way for highways and parks built by the most hated or beloved man (depending on your economic status) in New York: Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).
Randolph, an arrogant tycoon and the head of several city-planning departments, is inspired by the real-life Robert Moses, who wielded great power and destroyed neighborhoods with his vision of urban planning in the name of progress.
A mysterious figure (Willem Dafoe) keeps showing up at the same places as Lionel, raising Lionel’s suspicions. Assuming the persona of a news reporter, Lionel asks him questions, giving Dafoe the opportunity to divulge lots of exposition to keep viewers up to speed.
Baldwin is a perfect fit for Randolph. He conveys arrogance and power that surrounds him like an aura. Randolph has manipulated the system to gain tremendous, unchecked power to redesign the city according to his vision, which includes wiping out entire low-income neighborhoods in the name of eminent domain. He’s at the top of his game when gumshoe Lionel threatens to derail his empire.
Ms. Mbatha-Raw provides a romantic interest for Lionel as her Laura Rose figures ever more prominently in the mystery Lionel is trying to unravel. Laura Rose is attractive, intelligent, and self-assured, yet writer/director Norton nonetheless casts her as the damsel in distress when she finds herself in grave danger.
Writer/director Norton has moved the novel’s late 1990s setting to the 1950s, which allows the film’s production design department to have a field day with vintage cars, period fashions, and CGI reconstructions of a bygone New York City. Norton portrays Lionel as the hero because of his unwavering belief in loyalty and looking out for the underdog. He stumbles through a web of clues with a natural sense of progression rather than big revelation moments that would seem unlikely. Lionel does the leg work and his perseverance yields clarity.
Rated R, Motherless Brooklyn contains crackling dialogue reminiscent of classic film noir and low-key, sustained suspense. Though set in the 1950s, the film resonates today with its emphasis on urban overdevelopment, the break-up of long-standing ethnic neighborhoods, gentrification, racism, and corrupt politics.
The Blu-ray release from Warner Bros., featuring 1080p High definition resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Cinematographer Dick Pope creates a noir atmosphere, evocatively shadowy, with a retro vintage influence. Cars of the late 40s and early 50s era are in abundance, parked at the curbside, traveling through streets, and lined up at toll booths. There are images of Brooklyn’s low-income neighborhoods with houses in disrepair and locations that still reflect the era, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, the Robert Moses Building, and a New York City subway dressed to look as it did 60 years ago. The most ambitious set, Penn Station, was recreated in an airplane hangar. Frank’s costume is right out of The Maltese Falcon—a broad-brimmed homburg and long, wool coat with turned-up collar. A scene in a bar between Lionel and Tony is dark, with a hint of a red glow from behind them. Outdoor scenes are grey and overcast, with no hint of sunlight. Many of the scenes were shot at night, typical of classic film noir.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Other tracks are English descriptive, French, and Spanish. English subtitles are available for the hearing impaired. Dialogue is distinct and clear. Even Norton’s Lionel, despite occasional Tourette’s outbursts, can be easily understood. Though Norton’s dialogue doesn’t have the snappy wisecracking of classic noir, the characters use working-class language and speak without artifice. Willis’ Frank has a slow, low-key cadence to his voice that suggests self-confidence and power. Jones’ Gabby Horowitz speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent. Baldwin’s Randolph can be abrupt, as when he interrupts a meeting and makes demands, or political, as when he addresses residents about planned construction that will destroy neighborhoods. The film’s score nicely reflects the time period and becomes particularly important in the second half, when Lionel is introduced to jazz and it seems to ease his outbursts, having a calming effect on him. The soulful trumpet of Wynton Marsalis—suggesting the great Miles Davis—is featured in numbers played by an on-screen jazz combo.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include the featurette Making-Of: Edward Norton’s Methodical Process, deleted scenes, and an audio commentary with Norton. A Digital Code on a paper insert is included in the package.
Making-Of: Edward Norton’s Methodical Process – Norton notes the character of Lionel has a combination of Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive disorder. Norton was impressed with the book by Jonathan Lethem and reached out to secure the rights. He wanted to cast “old school” actors who could “roll with my craziness” of being on both sides of the camera. Fascinated with how the old New York City was converted into the new, he learned “deep and dark stories” of how the city’s tunnels, bridges, and highways were built. The traditional noir hero is not part of the mainstream but an outsider you can root for. Lionel is patterned on this character. The old Penn Station, torn down in the 1960s, was recreated in an airplane hangar on Long Island. The jazz score was designed to evoke a mood. Wynton Marsalis played all the trumpet solos. Norton sums up the experience: “Making a movie from soup to nuts is really exciting. I’m proud of what we pulled off.”
Deleted Scenes – Five deleted scenes are shown, one after the other, with no references. The most interesting is a long dialogue between Lionel and activist Gabby Horowitz in a car stalled in heavy traffic on a bridge. The camera switches back and forth as they speak. In one shot, we can see that the actors are in a stationary car against a green screen.
Commentary – Edward Norton was intrigued with the gumshoe/detective movie and wanted to keep certain traditions, such as the voiceover narration, while upending others. As Lionel tries to solve a crime, we watch him navigate the difficulties of his condition. His sudden outbursts put people off and convey the impression that he’s mentally unstable. A longtime fan of Bruce Willis, Norton always felt he was the “coolest guy in the room” and wanted him for the role of Frank Minna. Willis committed to the film early on, without even seeing a script. Norton was impressed with the work of cinematographer Dick Pope and his ability to give a distinctive look to his films on a tight schedule, an important factor considering the film had a 46-day shooting schedule. Pope captures a noir-ish look by using old lenses and creating an atmospheric color tone. Baldwin’s Moses Randolph is likened to Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side. Cherry Jones, a Broadway actress who won a Tony for The Heiress and originated the role of the nun in Doubt, is referred to as a legend. The production team was fortunate in securing such locations as a ballroom in the Plaza Hotel, the New York Public Library, and Washington Square Park. As with Rain Man and Forrest Gump, Motherless Brooklyn deals with an underdog character and his unique struggles within the context of the narrative. Laura helps to get Lionel’s emotions under control by being a calming influence. A song written by Thom Yorke was arranged into a jazz instrumental (played by Wynton Marsalis) to sound as if it were a song of the post-World War II era. Crowd control was difficult, especially when wide shots were used. In a key scene with hundreds of costumed extras, it was a task to make sure no period-inaccurate passers-by or vehicles were shown. In a scene in which Willem Dafoe walks through Washington Square Park and delivers a lengthy monologue, there was only about 40 minutes of light left. Norton was going to call a wrap for the day, but Dafoe was willing to do the scene, and Norton believes the mood of Dafoe’s character combined with the pressure of time worked together to get a successful scene. Norton observes that because Alec Baldwin is so adept at comedy, he is often underrated as a dramatic actor. Norton was fortunate to have such a name cast, since everyone worked for scale. In terms of the title, the director philosophically notes that during the period of the movie, no one was looking out for the City, contributing to social losses and neglect and allowing corruption, the pressure of power, and progress to dominate.
– Dennis Seuling